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The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia

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An inveterate jazz multitasker, Ted Gioia is an accomplished pianist and respected educator but remains best known for his work as a journalist and historian. His The History of Jazz, issued in 1997 and updated last year, is essential to any serious music library, as are his West Coast Jazz and Delta Blues. Now turning his attention to the standards repertoire, Gioia again blends impeccable research with an invitingly conversational style.

Gioia argues that there are between 200 and 300 jazz standards that every player and fan should know, splitting the difference by profiling 252 of them. His principal selection criterion is artistic durability: Whatever its vintage, does the composition’s embracement by jazz practitioners continue to the present day? Each entry is a page or two in length, augmented by a list of notable recordings. Though Gioia’s approach varies little from entry to entry-where, when, why and by whom the tune was written, its take-up by jazz artists and its interpretive evolution, plus a colorful anecdote or two-there is much to savor in his intelligent commentary. Consider, for example, his description of his favorite version of “Secret Love,” which “finds 20-year-old Keith Jarrett making his big league debut as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and deconstructing this Hollywood tune as if it were Finnegans Wake and he was there to defend his dissertation.”

The accompanying playlists are consistently elucidating, understandably favoring such giants as Armstrong, Coltrane, Davis, Brubeck, Sinatra and Fitzgerald but also highlighting lesser-known versions, many by contemporary artists.

For most entries, Gioia also provides brief but astute structural analyses. Dissecting Johnny Green’s “Out of Nowhere,” for instance, he notes, “As early as the third bar, Green offers a fakeout, apparently laying the groundwork for a modulation up a half step, then settles back instead into the tonic key.” Such insights will be appreciated by artists and hardcore aficionados, but may flummox more casual readers.

As is inevitable with directory-style projects, Gioia is sure to catch heat over his choices-not so much for what’s included (with the possible exception of “Dinah,” his selections are fully defensible) but for what’s left out. Not a single Frank Loesser composition makes the grade: no “On a Slow Boat to China” or “Let’s Get Lost” or “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Leonard Bernstein suffers the same fate: nada from West Side Story, nor the enduring “Some Other Time.” Likewise Lerner and Loewe (remarkably, nothing from My Fair Lady), Cy Coleman and Jule Styne. Nor, based on Gioia’s belief that newer material has yet to gain adequate jazz traction, is there anything more recent than Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” from the mid-1960s: no Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Tom Waits or Lennon and McCartney.

To address such omissions, and to allow for ongoing updates of each entry’s playlist, The Jazz Standards deserves a complementary website. And Gioia, who founded and edited the excellent, seems just the guy to shape it.

Originally Published